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Involuntary Bailees

Lord Tennyson is probably the most extensive Involuntary Bailee at present living. The term "Involuntary Bailee" may or may not be a correct piece of legal terminology; at all events, it sounds very imposing, and can be easily explained.

An Involuntary Bailee is a person to whom people (generally unknown to him) send things which he does not wish to receive, but which they are anxious to have returned. Most of us in our humble way are or have been Involuntary Bailees. When some one you meet at dinner recommends to your notice a book (generally of verse), and kindly insists on sending it to you next day by post as a loan, you are an Involuntary Bailee. You have the wretched book in your possession; no inducement would make you read it, and to pack it up and send it back again requires a piece of string, energy, brown paper, and stamps enough to defray the postage. Now, surely no casual acquaintance or neighbour for an hour at a dinner-party has any right thus to make demands on a man's energy, money, time, brown paper, string, and other capital and commodities.

If the book be sent as a present, the crime is less black, though still very culpable. You need take no notice of the present, whereby you probably offend the author for life, and thus get rid of him anyhow. Commonly, he is a minor poet, and sends you his tragedy on John Huss; or he is a writer on mythological subjects, and is anxious to weary you with a theory that Jack the Giant Killer was Julius Caesar. At the worst, you can toss his gift into the waste-paper basket, or sell it for fourpence three-farthings, or set it on your bookshelf so as to keep the damp away from books of which you are not the Involuntary Bailee, but the unhappy purchaser. The case becomes truly black, as we have said, when the uncalled-for tribute has to be returned. Then it is sure to be lost, when the lender writes to say he wishes to recover it. In future he will go about telling people that the recipient stole his best ideas from the manuscript (if it was a manuscript) which he pretends to have lost.

Lord Tennyson has suffered from all these troubles to an extent which the average Bailee can only fancy by looking with his mind's eye through "patent double million magnifiers." A man so eminent as the Laureate is the butt of all the miserable minor poets, all the enthusiastic school- girls, all the autograph-hunters, all the begging-letter writers, all the ambitious young tragedians, and all the utterly unheard-of and imaginary relations in Kamschatka or Vancouver's Island with whom the wide world teems. Lord Tennyson has endured these people for some fifty years, and now he takes a decided line. He will not answer their letters, nor return their manuscripts.

Lord Tennyson is perfectly right to assume this attitude, only it makes life even more hideous than of old to Mr. Browning and Mr. Swinburne. Probably these distinguished writers are already sufficiently pestered by the Mr. Tootses of this world, whose chief amusement is to address epistles to persons of distinction. Mr. Toots was believed to answer his own letters himself, but the beings who fill Lord Tennyson's, and Mr. Gladstone's, and probably Mr. Browning's letterbox expect to receive answers. Frightened away from Lord Tennyson's baronial portals, they will now crowd thicker than ever round the gates of other poets who have not yet announced that they will prove irresponsive. Cannot the Company of Authors (if that be the correct style and title) take this matter up and succour the profession? Next, of course, to the baneful publisher and the hopelessly indifferent public, most authors suffer more from no one than from the unknown correspondent. The unknown correspondent is very frequently of the fair sex, and her bright home is not unusually in the setting sun. "Dear Mr. Brown," she writes to some poor author who never heard of her, nor of Idaho, in the States, where she lives, "I cannot tell you how much I admire your monograph on Phonetic Decay in its influence on Logic. Please send me two copies with autograph inscriptions. I hope to see you at home when I visit Europe in the Fall."

Every man of letters, however humble, is accustomed to these salutations, and probably Lord Tennyson receives scores every morning at breakfast. Like all distinguished poets, like Scott certainly, we presume that he is annoyed with huge parcels of MSS. These (unless Lord Tennyson is more fortunate than other singers) he is asked to read, correct, and return with a carefully considered opinion as to the sender's chance of having "Assur ban-i-pal," a tragedy, accepted at the Gaiety Theatre. Rival but unheard-of bards will entreat him to use his influence to get their verses published. Others (all the world knows) will send him "spiteful letters," assuring him that "his fame in song has done them much wrong." How interesting it would be to ascertain the name of the author of that immortal "spiteful letter"! Probably many persons have felt that they could make a good guess; no less probably they have been mistaken.

In no way can the recipient avoid making enemies of the authors of all these communications if he is at all an honest, irascible man. Mr. Dickens used to reply to total strangers, and to poets like Miss Ada Menken, with a dignified and sympathetic politeness which disarmed wrath. But he probably thereby did but invite fresh trouble of the same kind. Mr. Thackeray (if a recently-published answer was a fair specimen) used to answer more briefly and brusquely. One thing is certain. No criticism not entirety laudatory, which the Involuntary Bailee may make of his correspondent's MS., will be accepted without remonstrance. Doubtless Lord Tennyson has at last chosen the only path of safety by declining to answer his unknown correspondents, or to return their rubbish, any more.

Of course, it is a wholly different affair when the anonymous correspondent sends several brace of grouse, or a salmon of noble proportions, or rare old books bound by Derome, or a service of Worcester china with the square mark, or other tribute of that kind. Probably some dozen of rhymers sent Lord Tennyson amateur congratulatory odes when he was raised to the peerage. If he is at all like other poets, he would have preferred a few dozen of extremely curious old port, or a Villon published by Galiot du Pre, or a gold nugget, or some of the produce of the diamond mines, to any number of signed congratulations from total strangers. Actors seem to receive nicer tributes than poets. Two brace of grouse were thrown on the stage when Mr. Irving was acting in a northern town. This is as picturesque as, and a great deal more permanently enjoyable than, a shower of flowers and wreaths. Another day a lady threw a gold cross on the stage, and yet another enthusiast contributed rare books appropriately bound. These gifts will not, of course, be returned by a celebrity who respects himself; but they bless him who gives and him who takes, much more than tons of manuscript poetry, and thousands of entreaties for an autograph, and millions of announcements that the writer will be "proud to drink your honour's noble health."


Andrew Lang